The clean laundry has been sitting in the basket since last Saturday, the baby just spit up on her new outfit while your toddler is screaming from the stairs, your boss has been pressuring you at work this week... and you were about to start making dinner. Your eyes sweep the scene... your spouse is sitting nearby scrolling Instagram.
What. Are. You. Doing. Why aren't you helping?
The rage mounts. You're about to explode... For the tenth time this week.
Does any part of this feel familiar?
It's more challenging to take the time to think about what's coming out of your mouth than it is to just react. Especially when you're faced (regularly) with situations like the one above (insert your own trigger scenario). But what if you could begin to shift the way you respond? Even just some of the time? Even just a little bit?
The truth is, by changing the way we express our anger at each other -- which is often based in frustration about life or the situation rather than rooted in the person -- we could change the course of our relationship for the long term. Does that feel worth it?
Let's face the facts: all couples fight. If you don't, there may be unspoken issues that surface later (but that's another blog post). It also depends on your life's stress level. Loads of people lament that they barely used to fight, and then they had kids... oh, kids! The ultimate log on the fire. They make parents feel so warm and fuzzy. But at the same time, kids add a significant amount of stress and demand, which makes warm and fuzzy turn into oh-so-hot-and-ready-to-ignite at each other at the drop of a hat.
You both have jobs (working inside or outside the home), a dwelling to maintain, bills to pay, people to please, and kids to try to stop from ending up in the ER. So let's just assume fighting is here to say. But what if there was a way to fight fairer? Could it allow you to feel all the tough emotions along the way but communicate them better AND avoid permanent damage? The absolute answer is YES.
Read on for the Top 3 How's and Why's to Fighting Fairer for the Long Term:
1. Watch your tone: Ok, I don't mean to sound like your mom. But tone is the ultimate and first betrayer.
"LOVE, COULD YOU PLEASE GET OFF THE COUCH AND GET THE BABY"
in an aggravated and terse tone negates the use of the words LOVE and PLEASE. Peppering your fight with nice words doesn't make an aggressive-toned statement head in the right direction. Instead, practice maintaining an even tone and volume. I used the word practice for a reason. It's likely it doesn't come naturally. It may take restraint, but using an even tone not only decreases the amount of stress, urgency, and anger being exchanged, but it makes the receiver feel less defensive in response. Doing this can immediately change the course of an exchange. thus preventing it from escalating into a fight to begin with.
2. Turn the Tables: Take a moment to put yourself in your spouse's shoes for a moment (please practice this exercise even if it is after a fight. It will eventually help with your mindset). Try to see and hear yourself from the outside. How would you feel if you were hearing the words you speak? How would you want to respond if you were receiving the tone, facial expressions, or body language you're using? Be completely honest with yourself. If the answer is: "I wouldn't want to be around me", or, "I'd get pissed off back" then it could be time to make a change.
By truthfully shifting your stance and your assessment of the situation to your partner's experience, you give yourself the chance to be self-reflective and mindful. And those are two incredible, durable qualities in a spouse... If you tune in to yourself and acknowledge that receiving your words/physical expressions would make you recoil, it's time to pause and reconsider a more open and collaborative way to get your point across.
3. Focus on Yourself and Reveal the "Why": No, this is not the opposite of #2. But, it's a tip I'm sure you've heard before, and for good reason: To focus on yourself means to use "I" statements. See? I told you you'd heard it before. But these aren't just any old ineffective "I" statements. I want to take your "I" statements one step further to make them work harder for you (Read: Help your partner understand you better).
In it's most basic interpretation, the tip to use "I" statements is far too basic and doesn't truly do much for you. For example, we think it means to say, "I am angry" instead of "you're really ticking me off", or "I am feeling frustrated because the laundry is still in the basket" instead of "you've left the laundry there all week!"
What I want you to do is move beyond the "I" statement. Go to the "I" feeling. Deep dive into the emotions underneath the words you were about to speak, or did speak (again, this may take some time and practice and may happen afterwards for while you're replaying the fight in your head). What is the message that your spouse's actions/the situation is telling you? These are the feelings and the why underneath your anger and frustration.
"You haven't put away the laundry!" = I feel like everyone expects me to do everything for the family all the time, and I'm getting worn down. I'm also worried my own career is taking a backseat lately. I can't do this all and I'm overwhelmed.
"You're sitting on the couch while chaos ensues (!!)" = More often lately, I feel like I'm the only one paying attention and it makes me feel alone, not like we are in a partnership. And that makes me kind of sad. I'm also worried that if I'm the only one to intervene, I'm going to be seen as the mean parent and you'll always be the nice one.
The words in italics are examples of the words you'll want to speak to your spouse. Most likely not in the middle of the heat of the moment, but only after you've used Tips 1 and 2 to help you get through the tough scenario much better and you've got a moment afterward to breathe and communicate. Taking a time out for this kind of exchange is an extremely healthy and healing way to attempt to come together after a disagreement. You'll help your partner understand where your upset is coming from and help them open up to the very tangible realities of how and why you're feeling the way you do.
You don't have to wonder where your marital bliss went. It's there. But maybe it's hiding. Ready to come out. Since respect is the foundation of marital bliss, by fighting fairer we ensure that we try to respect our partners as best and as often as we can. Practicing this as often as possible will help our partnerships endure the many rollercoasters of life. Sure, nobody is perfect. Sometimes you've just got to get mad and work it out. But if, like many people, you've felt crummy about exploding or nagging lately, I hope these tips can help you get on the right track.
Lauren L. Drago, MSEd, LMHC, LPC is the founder of Lauren Drago Therapy in Old Saybrook, CT and in greater CT, NY & PA. She specializes in working with smart, insightful and capable women to overcome stress, anxiety, loss of identity, self-limiting beliefs, perfectionism, marriage strain, and the pressure of "trying to do it all." Lauren has a passion for helping others to achieve the happy, fulfilling, productive, and meaningful life they deserve by changing how they experience and understand their world. She believes that every woman can and should live out her personal definition of her own best life. Follow Lauren on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Call (860) 339-6515 for your free initial 15-minute consultation.